There wasn't a letdown.
With a weekend against Big Ten-leading and consensus top ten team Illinois awaiting their return to Columbus, Ohio State made sure to take care of matters in the Land of Lincoln, sweeping a Sunday doubleheader and the weekend against Northwestern. After turning back the Wildcats 6-3, then 5-2 in 11 innings, Ohio State improved to 31-10 on the year, 12-3 in the Big Ten. Without a midweek game as students take spring semester exams, the Buckeye nine will enter their biggest test of the season one and one-half game behind the Illini in the Big Ten table.
"We had great starts from both of our starting pitchers today and I really liked how we played defense," head coach Greg Beals said. "We made big plays. If we can support our pitching staff with defense, they are going to be very tough."
Before turning their attention to the team in Champaign-Urbana, Beals' club needed to grind out wins against the team from Evanston. Without several key contributors, everyday third baseman Troy Kuhn and backup second baseman L Grant Davis not seeing action the entire weekend and senior co-captain Connor Sabanosh not playing in Sunday's twinbill, Ohio State's depth in the lineup once again shown bright.
In support of starter Travis Lakins, Ohio State quickly jumped on the Wildcats in the twinbill opener. RBI-singles from Pat Porter, Nick Sergakis and Craig Nennig staked the Buckeyes to a 3-0 lead after one at-bat. After two trips to the plate, Ohio State was in front 4-0.
In the top of the second, center fielder Troy Montgomery singled with one out. After stealing second and third base, the sophomore scored when Porter reached first on a two-out error. Montgomery would finish the game with four stolen bases, upping his Big Ten lead to 26 swipes in 28 tries.
"We continued to show our team speed and that can certainly help your offense," Beals said.
The early outburst was more than enough for Lakins, the sophomore right-hander who was coming off a 10-inning complete game victory at Nebraska to start Ohio State's current and season-best seven-game winning streak.
The native of Franklin, Ohio cruised through the first two innings, culminating by striking out the side in the bottom of the second. A leadoff walk would come around and score for Northwestern in the bottom of the third, and the Wildcats manufactured a run in the bottom of the fourth with two singles and a sacrifice fly, but halving the early 4-0 hole would be as close as Paul Stevens' club would come.
With Lakins putting zeros on the scoreboard in the fifth and sixth innings, a three-hit seventh allowed Ohio State to regain control of the game.
Recording a double in a second consecutive at-bat, Sergakis put a Buckeye in scoring position to lead off the visitor's at-bat in the seventh. After a fly out from senior catcher Aaron Gretz moved the Buckeye third baseman to third, a single from Nennig plated the Buckeyes fifth run. Ohio State's scoring in game one closed on a RBI-single from sophomore second baseman Jalen Washington, Nennig coming around from second where he reached after a stolen base.
The 'Cats showed they wouldn't die easily when they took to the plate in the seventh. A one-out single was followed by Lakins issuing his third walk of the day. His ninth strikeout of the contest would follow in the next at-bat, but a hit batter loaded the bases. Northwestern bringing the go-ahead run to the plate, Beals called on freshman right-hander Seth Kinker to get the Buckeyes out of the jam. Kinker forced a fly out to center off the bat of Matt Hopfner, erasing the Wildcat right fielder and leaving the bases loaded.
Northwestern tagged Kinker for a run in the ninth off a pair of doubles to make it a 6-3 contest before Ohio State closer Trace Dempsey recorded the 27th out of the game to secure the win with his seventh save.
Improving to 3-2 on the year, Lakins' line read 6.2 innings, eight hits, three runs, all earned, with three walks and nine strikeouts. Sergakis' 3-for-5, two-double day and Nennig's two-RBI showing with two hits in five at-bats paced Ohio State who matched last year's win total in the victory.
The second game of the doubleheader didn't see the same offensive fireworks as the lid-lifter, but it saw another strong pitching performance and timely hits.
Senior left-hander Ryan Riga would pitch nine innings, allowing two runs off four hits, walking two with a pair of strikeouts. A sterling line, Riga contained the Wildcats for eight of the nine innings he was on the mound.
Back-to-back singles opened the Wildcat second inning before a hit batter loaded the bases. Riga induced a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Northwestern senior shortstop Cody Stevens, but the game's first run scored. The innings third single doubled NU's lead before Riga got a lineout to Nennig at shortstop to end the inning.
From there, Riga was masterful. The southpaw tossed 1-2-3 innings in five of the final seven frames, conceding only one hit in the process. Hoping his team would find a bit of lightning, Riga carried the team until the Buckeyes found the big hit.
Freshman DH Tre' Gantt reached first on a throwing error by Northwestern second baseman Antonio Freschet to begin the Buckeye sixth inning. The Wildcat mistake proved costly as junior first baseman Zach Ratcliff pulled his first home run of the year over the left field wall, in the net at-bat, knotting the game at 2-2.
The scoring ceased for the next four innings, Ratcliff would be the one to propel the Bucks to victory. A single through the middle allowed Ratcliff to reach, the first batter of the 11th inning. Pinch-runner Jacob Brobst moved to second on a walk drawn by Montgomery before stealing third, Montgomery advancing to second on the stolen bases. A single to center by Washington plated the two Buckeyes before Porter capped the three-run outburst with a solo home run.
"We got production from Washington and Ratcliff," Beals said. "It was great to see them step up and take advantage of their opportunities."
Enjoying a 5-2 lead, Dempsey, who relieved Riga to start the tenth inning, pitched a 1-2-3 11th to record his ninth win in 10 decisions, closing the book on Ohio State's 3-0 weekend.
Ratcliff, Porter and Washington each picked up two hits as Northwestern junior left-hander Reed Mason held the Buckeye bats quiet. Matching Riga with a no decision, Mason held Ohio State to two runs, one earned, off four hits in 8.2 innings.
But again the Buckeyes found a way to win a tight game late. The team moving to 4-0 in extra-inning games setting up the big weekend to come.
"It’s not easy to sweep a team on the road, but our guys took care of business," Beals said. "We have exams coming up and we need to rest up to get ready for next weekend."